To believe that activism solely means burning chairs is to believe that it is nothing but a misguided rage. It is not. Assuming for the sake of argument that the PUP activists have caused more trouble, it must be asked precisely what kind of trouble Cate De Leon in her article published in the Philippine Star refers to. She does not say what it is. But if by “trouble” De Leon means earning the ire of pundits like her, the question is trivial, if not rhetorical. These activists have caused more trouble, and rightly so.
De Leon raises the question of whether the PUP activists who recently burned chairs, or practically all activists who deface property, “achieve the changes they want in a timely manner.” The inquiry fails to comprehend the underlying motivation: the challenge to rouse public attention. More fundamental, still, is the need to spur the sensibilities of those who, by virtue of actually having been there in the event, are entitled to raise the questions that some people, particularly those who can only afford glossing over the photographs of the incident in their bid to write-off activism as “passé,” are wont to raise. In the context of Kristel Tejada’s death, which is a ripe example of how systematic oppression kills, nothing can be timelier than that. To be sure, setting chairs afire is not the penultimate objective, though the naïve believes otherwise. It is but an initial step that cannot be helped, one that must be allowed if we must be made to realize how callous, how indifferent we have become, which is what De Leon’s article stands for — a Molotov directed at the activists rather than the greater injustices around us. We care for the tens of chairs, but we refuse to acknowledge the countless victims of the education system. Or if we do, we reconcile ourselves with the losing proposition that nothing can be done, so we let things be.
If the PUP activists “piss[ed] people off,” it must be said that the ax fell where it should. For all the symbolisms of fire and the actual destruction of the dilapidated chairs, the line has been drawn. On one side are the activists who are lambasted for behaving contrary to the supposed ethics or professed moral superiority of their critics who, all of a sudden, have become experts on taxation and property law. These contrarians, the activists, they do not fear the umbrage of messianic individualists if only to show the people the forest for the trees. It is an unpopular stance that attracts the rebuke from the minds of those who linger in political comatose. On the other side are those who can only go as far as criticizing those who stand up for the rights of the people, people such as De Leon. At times when activists fall short, critics have their tongues peppered with invectives, itching to berate activists at the first sign of defeat, if not truncheons. They do that with profound expertise, and yet they avoid joining the cause of these activists in the first place. Surely, it is the height of absolute hypocrisy to desire a just world while remaining unwilling to fight for one, let alone to raise a clenched fist. For all the oppression, we are even willing to let our sensibilities calcify by living ever so gently. Without rage, we fail to realize the power that we hold.
De Leon assumes that the PUP activists’ brand of activism does not work, or is no longer “necessary,” “effective,” and “efficient.” The assumption is dubious at least and spurious at worst. It is precisely this brand of activism that has kept alive the numbers of activists not only in PUP but elsewhere in the country and the rest of the world. Behold the Arab Spring. Witness the Occupy Movement. Or closer to home, testify to the recent UP Strikes Back march from Diliman to Mendiola. Their sheer numbers cannot be waylaid by the strokes of journalistic pen as new ones take the stead of the older ones. It may even be pointed out that the “good number of [De Leon’s] professors [who are now] former activists” are the exception rather than the rule. It must be so, for they have literally outlived the rest of the activists who could only be silenced by death through old age, if not the full bloom of youth. These former activist professors of De Leon are alive precisely because they have resigned themselves to the comfort of their swivel chairs and professorial duties. The problem with the assumption of De Leon is that it is infected with myopia, especially from one who brandishes pride from a belt of “limited but actual experiences” but haphazardly heralds in the same breath that this is the age when “everybody just wants to get along and keep going.” Sort of makes you wonder what epoch some people belong to, or if the world has ever progressed since the Homo erectus.
The use of the “friction” idiom in De Leon’s piece is as complacent as her proffered stance. “Even the laws of physics will tell you,” De Leon writes like a physicist, “that the less friction, the more and the faster work gets done.” This presumes that at least one of the two abrasive sides in contact must relinquish its resistance, which is De Leon’s way of saying that activists must stop confronting people, the system, and “all the ills of this world” so that we can be closer to living a smoother life. As if on cue, De Leon hints that activists must follow her lead in dealing with issues, which is to have “bare, honest, face-to-face conversations” and “seeing to the necessary paperwork.” The proposition is cute and not entirely amiss, except that activists themselves have done the same long before she passed the UPCAT, and they continue to do the same, only more, especially in times when administrators themselves refuse activists the space for dialogue where they can voice their reasons even as they insist an “actual, authentic, two-way communication.” But the more important question is why activists should be the sacrificial lambs before the altar of a frictionless world, to borrow De Leon’s aphorism. Indeed, if one is to go by the same logic that De Leon champions — “Einstein’s definition of insanity” — if the current education scheme does not work or no longer works for the democratic access of disadvantaged students, it is therefore imperative to “try something else” instead of repeatedly oiling the status quo.
At the core of De Leon’s essay is her belief — “tempted to almost believe,” according to her — that “oppressive structures are illusions.” For her, these “imaginary demons” are “run by people — ordinary, relatable people who shit in the morning.” I do not know which is true: whether these people in fact shit in the morning, or whether De Leon, by way of a cautious but belated confession, truly “[does not] want to sound naïve” while doubting the very bedrock of her thesis. The incongruity of it is that if indeed oppressive structures are illusions, the cause of Kristel Tejada’s suicide may well be dismissed as a false impression, a figment of the imagination, a farce, and Kristel Tejada saw something that is not there to begin with. Nothing is wrong. Ergo, the education system, though far from being perfect, must be tolerated. In the book of casualties under the present education scheme, there is no Kristel Tejada to speak of and the millions of school dropouts every year. Statistics are just numbers, nothing more than faceless numerals. And yet, irony of ironies, De Leon accuses activism as something “that would have us see others in a dehumanized light,” as if activists only stage “wars on much larger scales than necessary,” as if calling the public attention to the plight of Kristel Tejada, her family, and the millions of others is not necessary, is not something a morally upright human being does, as if that wretchedness is not experienced by those in the fringes of society who, despite having to live through inhumane conditions, remain as human as before.
The trouble, of course, is that others refuse to see it that way no matter how palpable. They simply see through the necessary paperwork while professing a profound understanding of the “fine line between compassion and pity” without practicing either.
In a completely unrelated anecdote I am tempted to almost believe, a friend said that some people are borderline sane — almost sane, but never actually sane. I do not want to sound naïve, but these people are ready to concede that the individuals who actually run oppressive structures, structures that are illusions anyway, shit in the morning than admit that activists are fighting a just cause in behalf of everyone. For whatever it is worth, these people demonize activists for demonizing imaginary demons. Good job for these critics of activists, I dare say. Surely, after all has been said and done, the world is now better than before.